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Steven Eisner of Eisner Murray and Bill Dewson of William Dewson Architects revamped the interior of a 1880s Victorian house in Rosedale. (William Dewson Architects)
Steven Eisner of Eisner Murray and Bill Dewson of William Dewson Architects revamped the interior of a 1880s Victorian house in Rosedale. (William Dewson Architects)

A home with a cut and paste centre Add to ...

You’ve heard the phrase “first-world problems,” right?

Well, real estate writers have a version of that – although I’m not yet sure what to call it – when each project they tour becomes more beautiful than the next. The result? It becomes harder and harder to, well, find words that do them justice. Breathtaking? Innovative? Striking? Bah! The English language just isn’t up to the task.

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I suppose there are worse problems a guy could have.

The only light at the end of the tunnel is that this just can’t go on. There can’t be that many guys such as builder Steven Eisner of Eisner Murray or architect Bill Dewson of William Dewson Architects out there. If there are, I’m doomed, so I’ll just focus on what these two talents have combined to create in Rosedale for a young family.

From the street, this home offers all the delights of the 1880s: big gables, an interesting fenestration pattern, a side porch, a large cantilevered bay window on the east side and a wonderfully-windowed coach house over the garage. It all stacks up as a great example of a solid Victorian in a protected heritage district.

However, open the front door and I’m afraid poor Queen Victoria is blown away.

Again, while words will fail me, what hits a visitor first is the sheer openness of it all. To the left is a glorious staircase (more on that later) while, to the right a formal sitting area connects to the formal dining area, which is punctuated by a lovely doughnut-shaped light fixture. But don’t let the word “formal” stall you: Any hint of formality is thrown down and pinned to the mat by that domineering timber ceiling. Well, maybe “domineering” is the wrong word and wrestling the wrong metaphor (see the trouble I’m having with language?). The ceiling is just about the nicest you’ll ever see, actually, and it spans the entire main floor and every other floor of this four-storey stunner.

To incorporate this complex system into the protected heritage home – the double-wythe lath-and-plaster walls had to be retained as well as the window openings on the three public sides – the interior had to be gutted while saving original floor joists that were tied into the exterior walls. Then, this new timber skeleton was “inserted” into the empty space, which Mr. Dewson says looked like “a cathedral.”

“What we essentially did was cut out the centre and replace it with this post-and-beam and timber joist system by Timber Systems and secured all of the exterior into it,” explains Mr. Dewson, “and this created the frame, which stabilized [the home] and allowed us to open it up.”

“We sliced and diced,” adds Mr. Eisner.

To give the eye a treat, the chunkier posts and beams were accentuated by staining them a lovely “coffee-black” colour, while joists above were left looking raw and woodsy. Here and there, drop ceilings offer creamy-white visual relief. The overall effect is so casual, it overwhelms all traces of formality.

“People don’t live like that any more,” says Mr. Dewson of formality. “Now we live open-concept; everybody wants to use most of their space [and] kitchens are an integral part of their living.”

Oh, and that whimsical staircase helps lighten things up, too. From the main floor one notices a slight curve, but, as one climbs it, it becomes more apparent as one realizes the next staircase up (from the second to the third floor) does a criss-crossy dance across one’s head as it moves into that cantilevered bay window. The effect is rather like ascending an escalator in a funky department store. Thick, 5/8-inch curved glass balustrades (bent in the U.S. as no factory could do it in Canada) add to the visual lightness.

These stair curves allow for lots of “peek-a-boo” moments into other nooks – and levels – of the home, too. In one such case, one can spy a little half-stair from the master bedroom to the coach house, now transformed into a handsome home office. That little stair is visible from the informal living room at the rear of the home, too, as it hangs over the top of the floating mudroom closet, which the family calls “the dance floor.”

On the second floor is the home’s master bedroom, large walk-in closet and master bath, and, up on the third floor is the “children’s area,” where each of the homeowner’s three girls have their own bedroom. The girls also share a spectacular, curved-wall bathroom positioned in the middle of the floor; with no opportunities for direct sunlight, a clerestory has been added to the wall closest to the stairwell in order to “borrow” some from big skylights on the roof.

Standing outside beside the backyard pool and peeking into each of the home’s four levels (a walk-out basement was created due to the site’s existing grading), one really gets a sense of the home’s new, non-Victorian openness and the warmth offered by the new timber system that holds everything together.

It’s a mini-masterpiece of design ingenuity that marries old and new effortlessly. However, if Toronto continues to pump out projects of this calibre, I’ll have to invent a new language to describe them.

 

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